18th to 21st March
Having departed Singapore, we set courses through the Malacca Straits once more and dealt with all that it entails. The lanes are still busy and one has to have one’s wits about you as we negotiate them. We needed 14 kts to make Port Malai, on the island of Langkawi, which was an unfortunate speed, as most of the other vessels were making either slightly less speed, or a fraction more. This resulted in bunches of vessels, either overtaking us slowly, or we were overtaking others, again slowly. Occasionally, as we had some speed in-hand on our diesel-generator configuration, a short ‘burst’ of speed was needed, this to avoid being at known course alteration points at the same time as many other vessels.
Eventually, after some 14 hours, we ‘broke out’, reaching the northernmost end of the traffic lanes and started to head north, while most of the other vessels took westerly courses. All we had to contend with then were the multitude of fishing fleets and this continued all the way to Langkawi. This destination was unknown to us, we had not called there before. It is an island, or an archipelago of around 100 islands, situated on the west coast of Malaysia, close to the Thai border. Our destination, Porto Malai was on the largest. We were pleasantly surprised to find a well-constructed, modern cruise pier, very similar to those one would find in the Caribbean; this one had been built for its more regular clientele, Star cruises, which is one of the larger Asian cruise lines.
The archipelago is, surprisingly, in the top 20 of world-wide destinations, with beautiful beaches, excellent diving and a plethora of other ‘things to do’. I took a quick ‘jaunt’ into the nearest town, however the main attractions were further afield and that is where our guests intended to go. The main purpose of my jaunt was to try and find some worthy photos for the blog, however I came up short, artistically at least. It was a very hot day though, with high humidity and stopping for a drink of milk, out of a freshly-prepared coconut was refreshingly pleasant.
Onwards then to Phuket, Thailand and as this was a mere 124 miles away, during the late evening, I decided to stop and drift, taking our azipods off line, thereby reducing the number of generators and saving fuel. Having put these back online at the opportune time, we arrived off Phuket at 6 a.m. I had been told that the turning basin, within the harbour, had silted up and could not be used to turn around. As a consequence I had to swing outside, to the south of the channel and then go astern all the way up the buoyed channel to the berth, this was achieved without incident and we docked on time.
A group of us were meant to be going on a crew tour, one kindly arranged by our HR officer and the local tour company. 10 of us eagerly awaited the trip, a visit to the countryside, a cooking demonstration for Thai curry and the piece de resistance, an elephant ride. At 11 a.m. we piled into the minibus, full of anticipation and then the ‘proverbial’ hit the fan; the local taxi drivers moved in on us. These people, (and I won’t write what I would like to call them), more or less run the port, they choose who goes where and when and how much to charge, they are, in a word, despicable characters. Because they have got away with this for so long, they and their ‘union’ are all-powerful, even the bureaucrats are powerless to curtail their antics. So, much screaming and yelling on their part, the target being the poor tour personnel who had only tried to help us. To cut a long story short, 30 minutes after getting into the minibus, we were out of it, tour cancelled. I was absolutely furious and told this gaggle of miscreants what I thought of them, I’m not sure if they understood, but it made me feel better.
Guests came back to the ship with stories about this heinous group dropping them off at malls and shops, which they never asked them to do; demanding more money and having to pay a bribe to get back into the dock perimeter. I summoned the agent, who in turn summoned the local administrator and I laid down my sentiments in no uncertain terms. Apologies were profuse of course, ‘we are trying to stop this, but it’s taking time’, etc……… Would that I had the wherewithal to just tell them where they could ‘put’ their port and never call again. I departed on this sour note, thinking that unfortunately the Amsterdam calls here again in 2014.
We are now crossing the Indian Ocean towards Colombo, Sri Lanka, the seas are calm and the sun shining, what more could we ask for?
Jonathan Mercer is Amsterdam’s captain.